Let’s rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel on this rainy night in August of 1957, as he desperately heads towards the men’s room at Bob’s Bowery Bar...
(Please go here to read our preceding chapter; if you are the sort of person who thinks Proust was far too concise then you may want to click here to return to the very beginning of this Gold View Award™-winning 68-volume memoir.)
“Just the other day a student stopped in the aisle near where I was sitting on the train and said (and I quote), ‘Oh my fucking God, Dr. Bloom, are you actually texting?’ And I replied, ‘No, you saucy young scamp, I am merely reading the latest chapter of Railroad Train to Heaven on my phone!’” – Harold Bloom, in the Sports Illustrated Literary Supplement.
I continued to forge my way through this mob of drunken people, some of them dancing, or at least hanging onto one another as they staggered around vaguely to the rhythms of the jukebox music, and I am embarrassed to admit that I shoved several people out of my way, men and women both, and even used a sharp elbow twice or thrice.
Finally I made it around the end of the bar and into a short passage to a door on the right with a faded black painting on it of a male dog lifting a hind leg, and I shoved through with the heel of the hand that wasn’t in my pocket.
Despite what Josh had said (or at least telepathically communicated) about leaving me a clear field a little man was standing slumped at the one urinal that was in there, and when I leaned over to look under the closed door of the lone toilet stall I saw two shoes on the floor, presumably with feet in them.
A groaning sound echoed from within the stall, the byproduct of defecation or masturbation or something else I didn’t want to think about.
I straightened up and went over next to the little man slumped over the urinal.
On his tiny skull was a frayed greyish straw boater, and his body leaned forward so that the crown of this hat pressed against the smoke-stained tile wall above the urinal.
He wore a wrinkled summer suit of a yellowish color that might once have been a bright white back in the Roaring Twenties, and his small veiny hands hung at his side.
Yet another little old man.
He wore wire eyeglasses, and they had slipped down the bridge of his nose, prevented from falling off entirely only by the bulbous red protuberance that comprised the end of it. His eyes were closed, and he was snoring, with a sound like an old shutter with rusty hinges creaking in a fitful wind.
He also wore a faded floral-print cravat, knotted loosely and blotched and speckled liberally with stains and burns, and his sad withered grey little penis protruded from the open fly of his trousers.
Without even thinking about it, I got behind the old gent and, finally taking my hand out of my pocket, grabbed him under his armpits, and, holding my breath because he smelled of mildewed old newspapers, I dragged him over to the opposite wall and set him down on the dirty floor next to an overflowing tin waste basket. He slumped over to one side against the waste basket, but he didn’t fall any further or knock over the basket, and his hat stayed on. He continued to snore.
Perhaps a better man would have tucked the old fellow’s little penis away, and buttoned his fly for him, because his fly had buttons, not a zipper, but I was not that better man, and I quickly went back to the urinal, unzipped my own fly, and did what I had to do, right into the old-man’s urine that had been left unflushed in the bowl, along with a dozen or so cigarette butts and a few cigar stubs.
If anyone had asked me at the time, and thank God no one did, I would have said without hesitation that these next three minutes that I spent voiding my bladder were possibly the best three or possibly four minutes of my life.
Sure, I was still starving, and, yes, my knees still hurt and my head still ached, but at least one of the causes of my discomfort was being obviated, and quite pleasurably so.
But what was going through my mind, besides thoughts of cheeseburgers deluxe with extra bacon, and a seat to sit down on that I might take the weight off my poor knees, and, yes, a mug of cheap but cold beer, and maybe a shot of cheap warm whiskey too?
If I were to answer honestly the question posed way back at the beginning of the sentence before this one, I should be able to say nothing more specific than: the usual worry, wonderment, confusion, hope, anxiety, boredom that vied as always for supremacy in my brain – but all of that mattered little compared to the physical deliciousness of the urination I now partook of.
And, yes, way far back in the mistier regions of my brain I still had the awareness of my overriding goal (now beginning to look like a five-year plan at best): to get home to my own world, to my own body, to Cape May, my little Victorian town by the sea, to Elektra. If there was anything that might be more pleasurable than urinating when you really needed to, then surely making love with someone you loved might be that thing, especially if that other person looked and smelled like Elektra. Just to walk with her on the boardwalk would be nice. To walk at night along the beach. I could hear the waves crashing. It was a good sound, the sound of the surf, it sounded like life, but in a good way, and seemed to make speaking unnecessary...
Yes, these were a good four minutes, maybe even five, but then they passed, and it was back to business as usual.
“Jesus Christ, man,” said someone, “how long you gonna pee?”
I turned to my left. A man stood there, for a change not a very ancient man, but a short and fat Negro man, perhaps fifty years of age, maybe fifty-five, wearing a dark grey porkpie hat and a pinstriped short-sleeved shirt with a red-and-blue polka-dot bow-tie, red-and-black checked suspenders and billowing grey trousers pulled up over his great belly. He wore horn-rimmed glasses with very thick lenses, making his eyes seem enormous. I may be no Sam Spade but I surmised that this must be the man who had been in the toilet stall, and I also realized belatedly that the sound of waves crashing I had just heard had not been the sound of waves crashing at all, but the sound of a toilet flushing, and in fact it was still in the presumably final throes of its flushing.
“Um,” I said. I had not in fact quite finished doing my business, and I turned my head back to staring at the tiles in front of my face, and gave my penis a “get on with it” shake.
“I hope you are not offended by a member of my dusky race sharing these facilities with you,” said the man.
“No, not at all,” I said, glancing at him just briefly, and then turning back to the wall.
“Then why do you turn away from me? Am I that repellant?”
“No,” I said, turning reluctantly to look at him again. “But I am shy. I don’t like to talk to strangers when I’m, you know –”
“Strangling the worm?”
“Yes,” I said, and I turned away again.
I shook my penis, once more. I could still feel an ounce or so of fluid in there, and I might as well get it all out now. Who knew when I would next get a chance to use a men’s room, if ever?
“Are you sure you’re not prejudiced?” said the man.
“No,” I said. “I mean, yes, I’m sure I’m not prejudiced.”
“So you don’t think Negroes are innately inferior to Caucasoids?”
“To what?” I said.
“To members of the so-called white race, although many of them have more of a roseate hue than not, whilst some are as sallow as an old church candle.”
“Pardon me?” I said.
“Do you consider the black race inferior to the white?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, no, I mean, what do I know? I mean, no, I guess –”
“I mean, no, I’m sure of it, I mean, uh, who am I, what do I, I’m just, you know –"
This was my awkwardness talking. My awkwardness at being spoken to while trying to urinate, combined with my usual social ineptitude, and exacerbated by alcohol and drugs, weariness, pain, hunger, life.
“It’s a yes or no question.”
“You don’t sound very convincing.”
“Listen,” I said. Finally the last few drops seemed to be gone, but I gave it one last shake for good measure. “Mister, I just want to pee and get out of here, okay? Is that all right? I mean, does that mean I’m racist?”
“Jeeze, pal, take it easy.”
Finally he passed behind me and went over to the sink, which was to my right. He pumped some soap out of the dispenser which was attached to the wall, and then he flicked the tap handles and began to wash his hands.
I depressed the flusher handle, using the heel of my hand to lessen the odds of getting an incurable disease, zipped up my fly and waited for the man to finish so that I could wash my own hands. I was tempted just to leave without washing my hands, but I hate to do that. And I also knew this man would say something if I did.
“By the way,” he said, “what happened to old Buster over there?” He gestured with his head toward the little old man sitting sleeping against the wall.
“I moved him there,” I said, admitted. “He was passed out at the urinal and I really had to go.”
“No one is pointing an accusatory finger at you, sir. May I know your name?”
That question again. I felt more comfortable not telling him the name of my real self, and so I gave him the name I went by in this universe.
“Porter Walker?” he repeated.
“Yes,” I said.
“The bold new epic poet?”
I had almost forgotten.
“Yes,” I said.
“And here I thought you were just another damned honkey fool.”
And you were correct, too, I thought, but I didn’t say this.
He turned off the taps and tore a sheet of brown paper from a dispenser on the wall at right angles to the sink. Wiping his hands, he looked at me through those thick glasses and said:
“You do realize that you are the talk and envy of every poet in town.”
“Yes,” I said. I was still waiting for him to move away from the sink so that I could wash my hands.
“I too am a poet” he said. “Perhaps you have heard of me. My name is Lucius Pierrepont St. Cloud. The Third.”
“The third?” I said, stupidly, as if I were familiar with more than one Lucius Pierrepont St. Cloud and wanted to make sure of which one I was talking to.
“So you have heard of me?”
“No,” I said, “but, please, don’t take it personally. You see I really don’t read poetry.”
“And yet you write it.”
“That’s true,” I said.
“How do you hope to write good poetry if you don’t read poetry.”
“I don’t write good poetry,” I said.
“Ah! You are modest then.”
“I suppose I am,” I said.
“Let me take your hand, sir, that is if you deign to take the hand of a mahogany-skinned fellow poet.”
“I should wash it first,” I said. “My hand that is.”
“If you would only step away from the sink.”
“Of course, sir.”
He stepped back a pace, with a slight bow and a wave of his chubby hand.
I went over to the sink. He stood behind me, waiting for his handshake. Grimly I began the ritual of washing my hands. Now that I had urinated I had become once again fully aware of my various aches and pains, especially but far from exclusively emanating from my knees, and also of my intense hunger. My face in the mirror was indeed sallow, except for my black eye. I was unshaven and disheveled. I looked like a bum, an alcoholic, possibly a drug addict or a madman. I supposed I was at least one or two of those. As I washed my hands I heard the striking of a match, and then smelled and saw a cloud of cigarette smoke billowing around and past my head.
“Perhaps you have heard of my volume of poems,” the man said to my back, “entitled Songs of a Wandering Negro?”
Hadn’t I just told the man I didn’t read poems?
“I’m afraid not,” I said.
I had finished rinsing my hands off. I turned off the taps, but as I turned to grab a paper towel the man beat me to it, pulling one out and handing it to me.
“What about Hootenanny in Harlem: A Sonnet Sequence?”
“Sorry,” I said, wiping my hands, and, reluctantly, turning around to face him. He stood there smoking, holding his cigarette in an elegant sort of way, his elbow resting on his paunch.
“Okay,” he said, “but how about Take the A Train, or Failing That, a Bus?”
I crumpled up the paper towel.
“Is that the title of a book of poems?” I asked.
“Yes, another sonnet sequence, actually,” he said. “I just didn’t say so in the title, because the title already was pretty long.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” I said, “but I haven’t read that one either.”
I tossed the paper towel at the trash basket, but it had so much trash in it already that the paper bounced against the wall and then fell down onto the straw boater of the old man sleeping next to the basket; from his hat it fell to his narrow old shoulder and then to the floor, which was composed of millions of tiny hexagonal tiles of black and yellow, although they might once have been blue and white.
“I’m beginning to think you don’t like Negro poetry,” said the Negro man.
“No, sir,” I said. “Or, rather, yes, I don’t like it I suppose, but then I don’t like any poetry really, whether it’s written by Negroes or not.”
“You are unprejudiced in your prejudice then.”
I thought about this for about one second.
“I think that would be an accurate appraisal,” I said. “But it doesn’t matter.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I am an ignoramus.”
“But, sir, if you are indeed, as you say, an ignoramus, then how would you know whether it matters or not?”
“I cannot know,” I said. “But part and parcel of being an ignoramus is to say things that have no basis in actual knowledge.”
“You intrigue me, sir.”
“If you knew me better you would not be intrigued.”
“What would I be?”
“Most likely you would be bored.”
“Oh, but where are my manners,” he said, and he took out of his shirt pocket a crumpled pack of Philip Morris cigarettes, the unfiltered kind. He gave the pack an expert shake, and exactly one cigarette emerged one inch from the opening.
“No, thank you,” I said.
“They don’t have cooties you know.”
“I’m sure they don’t, but I’ve given up smoking,” I said, although actually I really did want one.
He didn’t press the issue, but, instead, as he put the cigarettes back in his pocket, he said, in a very casual-sounding way, “Would you care to buy me a drink?”
“I would prefer not to,” I said.
“Ah ha, so you are prejudiced after all.”
“No,” I said. “I just want to get out of this men’s room, rejoin my friend who’s waiting for me out there, and get something to eat.”
“I fail to see how anything you’ve just said precludes you from buying me a drink.”
“But I don’t even know you.”
“How can you get to know me if you won’t have a drink with me?”
“But I don’t want to get to know you.”
“I see. So you’re definitely prejudiced then. And after I offered you a Philip Morris, too.”
“Look,” I said, “can I just give you some money for a drink, and then you can drink it by yourself?”
“I have never been so insulted in my life,” he replied. “And, believe me, being a Negro in this country I know a little about being insulted.”
“But I just want to sit with my friend and get something to eat.”
“And I suppose I’m not good enough to join you.”
“No, it’s not that at all.”
“It sure sounds like it. It’s funny, you seem like a nice guy, but you’re just another racist.”
“Look,” I said. “I’m not a racist, honest. But I fail to see how I’m under any obligation to have a drink with a total stranger I’ve only just met in the men’s room of a bar.”
“Even if he is a Negro?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Or especially if he’s a Negro?”
“Okay,” I said, accepting defeat, again. “Look, I’ll buy you a drink. But just a quick one standing up at the bar, and then I have to get back to my friend.”
“So you are implying that you do not wish me to join you and this alleged ‘friend’ of yours?”
“I would prefer you didn’t, and before you say it, it’s not because you’re a Negro.”
“Then why is it?”
“Because you are annoying,” I said.
“And yet you will still have a drink with me?”
“Yes,” I said.
“But why, if you find me so, as you say, ‘annoying’?”
“So that you will stop annoying me,” I said.
“I admire your honesty,” he said. “Are you ready to go?”
“I’ve been ready these past several minutes,” I said.
“Then let us go.”
“Oh, wait,” I said, pointing at the old man sitting slumped on the floor. “What about him?”
“Old Buster? What about him?”
“Should we wake him up or something?” I said.
“Why?” he said. “Buster’s happy. Or as happy as he’s ever going to be.”
Who was I to argue the point?
I started for the door, but Lucius Pierrepont St. Cloud III got to it first, opened it, and, smiling, beckoned for me to go first.
(Continued here on this long road that has no end in sight.)
(Please turn to the right-hand column of this page to find a quite often current listing of links to all other officially-released chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™, now available for a mere pittance on your Kindle™!)